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Catherine Street & Monroe Street (Knickerbocker Village)

16 Apr

In continuing our exploration of public housing last time, I mentioned the Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC), created by Congress in 1932 with a whole slew of mandates that included providing loans for low-income housing.  This was really the first federal involvement in affordable housing of any kind (pre-dating the First Houses, the first public housing built in the country) and it turns out its first loan went to somebody we’ve mentioned before – Frederick French.  So a connection! I love a connection (and in fact last time I talked about Fred French it was kind of all about how I love a connection) so of course I gotta dive right in.  Don’t worry, this also fits with our whole exploration of the large housing complexes of the Lower East Side too, so we’re really batting 1.000 today. As I mentioned, the RFC was created to deal with a lot more than affordable housing financing; it was essentially an attempt to combat the effects of the Great Depression by stimulating lending.  The RFC had a mandate to provide financial aid to state and local governments and to make loans to banks, railroads, and yes, private real estate developers.

There was a catch of course: the private developer had to build affordable housing.  The goal was two-fold: to increase the supply of low-income housing and to help stimulate the construction industry.  Except there was another requirement, that any new construction be part of slum clearance; that is, the new “affordable” housing had to replace “slums.”  This would become pretty standard housing policy for the federal government and it seems that it was baked in pretty early.  The outcome essentially (whether it was truly the intention) was that there would be no net increase in the number of affordable units – you tore some down and replaced them with some new ones.  And in fact those new ones were often more expensive than the old (just like now! so hey, this tactic isn’t so new after all).  That was the case with Knickerbocker Village at least.

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In fact the story goes that Fred French originally purchased tracts of existing tenements in the Lower East Side with the idea of tearing some down and putting up a high-end development for junior Wall Street executives.  But this was during the Depression (1931) and there was no credit to be had.  So when the RFC was created Fred French took a different tack.  He chose the worst parcels in his holding – the so called “Lung Block” for its high prevalence of tuberculosis – and proposed it to the RFC as a worthy place for slum clearance.  They agreed – ultimately lending somewhere between 85%-97% of the total $10 million cost to build.  Some 650 families were evicted and their homes torn down, replaced by twelve 13-story buildings surrounding 2 court-yards.  Despite the low-interest loan it was still a seemingly expensive project; to keep the monthly rents low the tax assessment on Knickerbocker Village had to be reduced by 2/3.  This made the monthly rent $12.50 per room (as required by the RFC); the buildings that they replaced, by comparison, had rented for about $5 per room.  So most of those evicted families weren’t coming back (but hey, that’s why we were soon to build public housing right? For the poorest of the poor?).

Aerial View Knickerbocker Village Market Monroe Cherry St. New York City

It was instead largely middle-class professionals who moved into Knickerbocker Village.  But when they did (in 1934) they found the development essentially unfinished – things like no working elevators or fixtures in the bathrooms and kitchens, and none of the promised public facilities, such as laundry rooms or play rooms, in working order.  Their complaints to the Fred French Company fell on deaf (and apparently rude and dismissive) ears.  French and co may have forgotten that they weren’t dealing with the poorest of the poor here – a large number of Knickerbocker Village tenants were lawyers and journalists – and within weeks they’d joined together to form a rent strike and a highly visible political and press campaign against the building.  It was a campaign they won, with management agreeing to repairs and reimbursements (some $25,000 in total) within 6 weeks of the rent strike.  The successful tenants were emboldened to form a permanent Knickerbocker Village Tenants Association, to undertake a program of cultural and educational activities within the development (albeit with an activist tilt).  The Fred French Company wasn’t impressed and fought back through various methods – denying meeting space, starting a rival tenants association, and ultimately declining to renew the lease of a number of tenant association leaders.  The association sued to force renewal of the leases and though they lost the court case, the move by the Fred French Company backfired – the “eviction” of these tenants caused so much sympathy that the tenants association grew to over a thousand members.  Leaders of the group would go on to help form the Citywide Tenants Council in the late 1930s – a group we’ll hopefully explore more a little later.

Because as always there’s too much to follow in one sitting here.  Knickerbocker Village was also where Julius and Ethel Rosenberg lived, before they were arrested and executed as alleged Soviet spies in the early 1950s (see what happens when you start a tenants association?).  Knickerbocker Village was also home to numerous members of the Bonanno Crime Family, including Benjamin Ruggiero, portrayed by Al Pacino in the movie Donnie Brasco (see what happens when you start a tenants association?).  And today (and for some time) Knickerbocker Village has been part of the Mitchell-Lama program, which is something I definitely want to write about someday.  And then there’s all the other things of course that don’t even have to do with housing!  I know I tend to end too many of these with exclamation points, but why not?  It’s spring again!  It’s in the 60s!  Okay, okay, calm down. I’m gonna end this one with a semicolon. ; Damn. ;

Leonard Street & Maujer Street (Williamsburg Houses)

11 Mar

There’s more I want to say about public housing.  Well actually, what I really want to do is to go through all the NYCHA developments in chronological order – but then, I want to do a lot of things. I guess I’ll just add it to the list of all the other lists I want to get around to someday: skyscrapers, churches, oldest buildings in New York, tangents related to President John Tyler (and yes, I have some really wild weekends).

But in thinking about whether public housing is a failure or not – or maybe I mean to say in rethinking the idea that public housing is implicitly a failure – I keep thinking how desperately private developers in gentrifying neighborhoods must want to get rid of them.  They’re impossible to gentrify! (Well maybe not impossible – the whole nefarious practice of selling open NYCHA land to private developers is a step in that direction, though one for the time being that’s perhaps been halted).  But still, when public housing is torn down – as it has been in numerous American cities besides New York – it’s almost never replaced by brand new 100% affordable housing.  Of course not! 100% affordable housing is terrible for people who want to make a lot of money….and kind of hand in hand with that, who hate “excessive” government involvement.  It sets a really bad precedent – a precedent that these people have been trying to kill for a long time (and quite successfully).  In these public housing replacements there’s always a mix – and often a majority mix – of market rate buildings and apartments.  There’s almost always a loss in the net total of affordable units.  Well of course again! That’s the whole point of getting rid of public housing.

So give New York its credit: it wasn’t just the first builder of public housing, it’s also been good about not tearing its public housing down.  Hell, some of it is landmarked even – including First Houses that we talked about last time.  Another one is the Williamsburg Houses – made up of 20 four-story buildings covering 12 city blocks between Maujer and Scholes Street and Leonard Street and Bushwick Avenue.  Williamsburg Houses were begun in 1936 – just one year after the first tenants moved into First Houses – and opened in 1938, making them some of the earliest public housing projects in New York.  Unlike First Houses however, Williamsburg Houses weren’t built by the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) alone, but instead were a collaboration with the Housing Division of the Public Works Administration (PWA).  It wasn’t until 1957, almost 20 years after opening, that the project was turned over to NYCHA’s full jurisdiction and ownership.

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It’s worth noting this distinction for a moment, because it points in part towards why public housing really isn’t built anymore.  The PWA – the  builder of Williamsburg Houses – was a federal program; this was federal money building affordable housing.  What made the PWA especially unique is that it wasn’t just federal money (ie. financing) but actual direct involvement of the federal government in the planning and construction of public housing.  This was something new entirely.  Prior to the PWA the first federal agency to involve itself with housing was the Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC).  The RFC was created in 1932 to (among many other things) provide low-interest loans to limited-dividend housing corporations.  It only made 2 such loans though during the first two years of its existence.  So when the PWA, and its housing division especially, with its more robust involvement, came along in 1933 (as part of FDR’s New Deal – and originally called the Federal Emergency Administration of Public Works, until 1935) it represented a pretty big change. In the scheme of things its housing program was actually pretty short-lived, but in a 3 and half year period (starting in 1933) it collaborated on the construction of some 51 projects in 36 cities (though as its critics (it’s critics on the left I mean) would point out, that apparently only created some 29,000 units).  The Housing Act of 1937 (aka the Wagner-Steagall Bill), while strengthening the federal government’s commitment to housing, began to shift greater control to local authorities – returning the government’s role to essentially that of financing.

Maybe it was PWA’s influence, or maybe it was just the excitement of the early days of NYCHA but when it came time to design the Williamsburg Houses it seems they went all in.  NYCHA had a 5 person architectural board, including Richmond H. Shreve – a partner in Harmon, Lamb and Shreve of Empire State Building fame – and William Lescaze, considered one of the pioneers of modernism in American architecture.  Shreve appointed Lescaze as the chief designer for the Williamsburg Houses.  He opted for 4 “super” blocks, turned at 15 degree angles to the street grid – oriented to the sun and prevailing winds (prevailing winds?!) – and featuring a number of large and small courts that would flow into a large public space in the center of each block.  The facades were light-colored, in tan brick and exposed concrete, with entrances marked by blue tiles and stainless steel canopies.  The whole thing, though controversial at the time for its use of the “super” block, its breaking from the street grid, and its use of tan instead of red brick, was praised upon completion and has since been called by AIA, “the best public housing project ever built in New York.”

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I don’t know – I don’t really see it, and I feel like most people would probably agree.  But maybe that’s just because I’ve successfully internalized the fact that housing projects equal bad.  I mean, these look like housing projects, ya know? (Though I have to say, they do look better in black in white – nostalgia?)  But hey, 25,000 New Yorkers applied for the 1,622 available apartments when they first opened.  That’s actually a much better ratio than the 58,832 New Yorkers who applied for the 105 “affordable” units in a new development on Manhattan Avenue in Greenpoint last year (which, of course is mainly composed of market-rate apartments – figure that those 105 “affordable” units make up 20% of the total).  So who cares what Williamsburg Houses look like – these were 1,622 affordable units built all at once.  That’s equal to 15 luxury developments that include 105 “affordable” units but otherwise drive up the rents everywhere around them every place they go up.  And that are also also ugly.  I mean personally, if I have to choose, I’ll take ugly affordable any day.  Who’s with me?

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First Avenue & 3rd Street (First Houses)

12 Feb

Should I apologize for my long absence?  Have you all been waiting by the computer for me to write?  I know a lot of bloggers out there post multiple things a day.  But hey, that means by my analysis that I’m only about 264 posts behind since last time.  Piece of cake!  Let me just take a nap first and I’ll get right on it.

There’s still so much I want to talk about!  Remember how we were starting to look at some limited equity co-ops on the Lower East Side – as a kind of warm up to looking at some of the public housing?  Well let’s look at some of the public housing!  I’ve been thinking about it.

Because you read Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities (for example) and you come away feeling like public housing in the United States has been a failure.  Which it largely has been, both in execution and in design.  I mean in its physical design, which is what Jane especially goes after: the whole tower in the park thing; separating the development from the activity of the street and so ensuring that it will be unvisited by everyone who doesn’t live there and hence (in practice) be unwelcoming and unsafe for almost everyone (eg. you don’t walk through the projects, you walk around them).  In the larger sense of its design, as in the way it was envisioned, you could argue that public housing is a failure as well – made intentionally shoddy so as not to compete with private real estate concerns.  It had to be in essence for the poorest of the poor, because if it was for the working class, or (god forbid) the middle class even, they might start thinking that they didn’t have to get a mortgage (fully insured by the federal government – don’t call that government spending though) and buy their house on the private market.  And once it was for the poorest of the poor that pretty much sealed the deal in terms of execution – namely that the execution would be poor.  Poor for the poorest of the poor.  Spend very little money on the upkeep and security, etc, and then talk about what animals these poorest of the poor are to let their living spaces go this way.

This notion of public housing being a failure goes much further than Jane Jacobs of course (who after all, published her book in 1961) – at this point it’s part of pop culture really: the projects equal bad.  But there’s a kind of a false conflation that goes on I think in this notion of the failure of public housing – namely, equating the failure in design and execution with a failure in intentions or goals.  The point of public housing is to provide affordable housing.  And public housing does this by providing large apartment buildings that are 100% affordable (as opposed to inclusionary zoning’s 20%, for example).  Now yes, these are 100% affordable apartment buildings that in many cases  need a lot of improvement in terms of maintenance and security but these are 100% affordable apartment buildings that a lot of people want to live in (in NYC the waiting list is close to 250,000 families).  So yes, again, it needs some help in the execution, but the fundamental idea is sound.  People need affordable housing.  The private market often does a bad job in providing it.  If the government wants affordable housing it should build affordable housing.  That’s what it used to do!

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And it did it first in NYC of course.  New York is home to the first public housing built in the United States – appropriately named First Houses – opened to its first tenants on Dec. 3 1935, as the first project of the newly created New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA).  The 4-5 story, 8 building development still stands on 3rd St. between First Avenue and Avenue A, with a portion running down Avenue A to 2nd St. (and yeah, I know they might not be much to look at, but hey, it’s public housing).  The project replaced a number of older tenements on the site as an act of “slum clearance” – one of the requirements of the federal funding it received. The original idea had been to only replace every third tenement with new buildings but it was soon apparent that they were all in such poor structural condition that the whole lot would have to go.  Not all the owners were happy about this, and when one contested (Andrew Muller) – on the grounds that seizing the buildings, even with “just compensation,” went against the New York State (not to mention the United States) Constitution – the case made it all the way to the New York State Court of Appeals.  The court ultimately sided with the city, in what would serve as a landmark case regarding eminent domain.

But not all of the owners were so opposed.  In fact the principal owner of the site was one Vincent Astor, son of John Jacob Astor IV, himself the son of William Backhouse Astor Jr. and Caroline Webster Schermerhorn Astor (man, even when you’re talking about low income housing it’s hard to stay away from these folks).  Vincent Astor had inherited the site – along with a massive fortune – at the age of 20, after his father died on the Titanic.  By the early 1930s he had dedicated himself to philanthropy and was looking to separate himself from the role of slumlord.  He sold his parcels to NYCHA for half of their assessed value – a purchase made possible in large part by the issuance of a tax-free 66-year bond by NYCHA that effectively established the Authority’s credit.

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It was a big deal when First Houses opened – serving 122 families at an average monthly rent of $6.05 per room (equivalent to roughly $100 per room today).  The dedication in Dec. of 1935 was broadcast on national radio and besides the reading of a congratulatory telegram from President Roosevelt, included speeches by Mrs. Roosevelt, Mayor LaGuardia, Governor Lehman, Robert Moses (of course! he was everywhere) and a whole host of other names I want to explore someday.  There’s a lot more here I want to explore!  Can you all wait for it?  (By my analysis there are approximately 4 of you).  Take a nap and get back to me.

FDR Drive & Grand Street

16 May

Remember years ago when I got excited about that whole south-southeast corner of the Lower East Side – where the streets run basically true east west, pointed straight towards the Woolworth Building, diagonal to the grid – and I mentioned that I was going to spend some time exploring it?  (Of course you don’t! Hehe.)  Well there’s still time right?  Because I was down here the other day and I was once again struck by the sunlight, or I mean to say, the fact that you can get such wide bands of sunlight actually hitting the street due to the whole “tower in the park” paradigm that’s so prevalent – you know: big 20+ story brick buildings surrounded by swathes of open space that let the sunlight in.  And I was thinking, as I often do, how it didn’t always look like this – how it used to look like the rest of the Lower East Side in fact – and then my wife mentioned in passing how one particular group of buildings looked nicer than the others and I realized – wait a minute, just cause these buildings look almost the same doesn’t mean they actually are and wait a minute, if I wanted to I could try to learn what the differences are between them.  Well sure, why not?

Now I’m not quite ready to dive into the NYCHA houses yet – the New York City Housing Authority – that’s too large a beast for me to tackle.  Though I suppose in the grander sense that’s the big divide when it comes to these types of buildings, buildings that at a first glance you might consider “projects”: NYCHA versus non-NYCHA; public versus some type of cooperative/private enterprise.  So let’s start with something non-NYCHA and let’s start with something more recent and work our way backwards from there.  Let’s start with East River Housing.  Well sure, why not?

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East River Housing is made up of four buildings total: 2 just south of Grand Street and 2 just north, just west of the FDR Drive. Built by the East River Housing Corporation formed late in 1950, groundbreaking began in 1953, with the first building completed late in ’55.  The buildings were the third group to go up as part of what was (until recently) known as Cooperative Village – 4 separate but adjacent affordable co-operative housing projects built by trade unions over a period of some 30 years.  The specific union that financed the East River Housing project was the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, working in tandem with the newly formed United Housing Foundation.  The project was also the first to qualify for slum clearance funds under Title I of the Federal Housing Act; basically the federal government and New York City paid for the cost of acquiring the land via condemnation – 13 acres of “slums” (you always have to be wary about what that actually meant) to be torn down and replaced by the four new towers – with the East River Housing Corporation purchasing the land at public auction for about 1/6th of its condemnation price.

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All right, there’s a lot to unpack in that last paragraph, but the main thing that jumps out at me is that unions used to build affordable housing.  Private sector unions.  In the 1950s.  I mean, no wonder people were so afraid of communists!  There were actually some kinds of real live socialists around back then.  Abraham Kazan was maybe one of them.  He was key to the whole creation of Cooperative Village – and to scores of cooperatives throughout New York.  Known as the “father of U.S. co-operative housing” he was appointed president of the newly created Amalgamated Housing Corporation in 1927 – founded by the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America as the first limited dividend housing company in NYC and responsible for some of the earliest cooperatives in the city (and the country).  Those included the first two projects to make up Cooperative Village: Amalgamated Dwellings and Hillman Housing.  By the time East River Housing came along Kazan had just founded his United Housing Foundation (UHF), aimed at providing broader sponsorship for cooperatives throughout New York.  The UHF would go from here to develop numerous affordable cooperative projects – including the massive Co-op City in the Bronx (its 40,000+ residents making it, on its own, the 10th largest city in New York State).

One of the key ideas of East River Housing – and of limited dividend housing in general – was that the apartments weren’t to be used for speculation.  When it came time for an owner to sell they were required to sell it back to the Corporation, receiving back what the originally paid plus a limited dividend.  This was housing as a nice place to live, fulfilling a need (not just physical – spiritual too (says I)), as opposed to housing as an investment.  It’s not like that anymore of course, because the last 30 years has generally seen the doing away of those types of things.  If I understand it correctly, an East River Housing apartment today can be sold at market rate to whoever – though I imagine that coop board approval must still be needed.  In 1999, as the buildings were in the act of privatizing, the price of a one bedroom was still apparently capped at $65,000.  Today they go for at least 10 times that amount.  Now I know last time I was talking about how change is inevitable, and you can’t bemoan it too much, but we can bemoan this one a little right?  The cooperative members themselves were the ones who ultimately voted to privatize.  What happened to all the communists?

Warren Place

25 Nov

Time, my friends! You know what I’m saying? There’s not enough of it…..or else I mean to say, it passes. But what can you do? That’s the entire medium we live our lives in right, time passing – like what water is to the fishies or mayonnaise to an egg-salad sandwich. I mean, nothing would happen without time passing. So I guess we should enjoy it. And I do! Most of the time. It’s just that I have all these things I want to write about and I kind of try to keep a list about them even and stay on top of things but then time keeps passing and I can’t even begin to keep it up. I was going to try to blame it on the Red Sox winning the World Series but damn, even that was a long time ago! Still, there’s some kind of lesson there about time passing too, right? In baseball, I mean: the drama of each anticipatory moment becoming reality a few seconds later, a reality that can never be undone. Actually, that’s kind of what the game is all about. Maybe it’s just cause I’m the last true American (no pressure though) but I pretty much enjoy watching playoff baseball more than anything in life. Well, my sons pretty cool too I guess. And you know, my parents. Oh yeah, and my wife. Hi honey!

But back to those lists. Cobble Hill was on there at some point, though it’s getting on a ways. I remember that I was wearing a t-shirt when I walked through here and thought about it, and it seems the t-shirt days are long behind us. I’m a little embarrassed  to say this (being the last true American and all) but I’ve only just gotten around to finally knowing the difference between Cobble Hill and Boerum Hill and (here’s the embarrassing part especially) Clinton Hill, but now I’ve finally gotten it straightened. But even having it straightened I was unprepared for how arresting the streetscape of Cobble Hill is. I don’t know 19th century Philadelphia too well, but it reminded me of that: narrow streets and close set, squat brick houses. It’s beautiful but it’s not beautiful like Brooklyn Heights or Park Slope I guess, is what I mean to say. I don’t know, maybe someone who knows it better might disagree.

But here’s a pretty damn good example: the Workingmen’s Cottages on Warren Place. I can’t think of an equivalent anywhere in the city.  These 34 “cottages” run along the private Warren Place, gated at both ends. They’re all 3-stories tall and 11 feet wide and included a total of 6 rooms in their original iteration, as well as a rear alley in the back that it seems have now been turned into private patios. As the name implies they were built as affordable housing: one-family homes for low and middle income tenants, and they all included private toilets – quite a treat at the time. The time by the way was 1879, when most “affordable housing” didn’t look like this. Of course most affordable housing doesn’t look like this now. (And yeah, I’ll just go ahead and mention that one of these sold for $1.3 million in June…are you surprised though?)

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The houses were built by Alfred Tredway White, who was apparently known as “the great heart and mastermind of Brooklyn’s better self,” (they don’t make nicknames like they used to) and who was responsible for a number of highly lauded affordable housing projects in the late 19th century. White was a Brooklyn native, coming from what you could call good (wealthy) Brooklyn stock; he married one of the granddaughters of former mayor – of both Brooklyn and then New York City – Seth Low, which is pretty good stock too. And it seems he was a pretty good guy – “heart and mastermind of Brooklyn’s better self” and all. He was the superintendent of Brooklyn’s First Unitarian Church’s settlement school for something like 50 years, and through his experience with the homes of his poorer pupils he became involved in building innovative affordable housing. Right next door to his cottages he built the Tower Buildings (1879) and the Home Buildings (1877), also for the working classes. His motto was “philanthropy plus 5%” encapsulating his belief that work for the public good could still return a decent investment. That’s all around a better motto than what you might find in action today isn’t it – which I guess I’d describe as  “tax breaks and as much profit as I can get.” It’s cool though you know? I mean, time passes, it doesn’t always have to be this way.